By Richard Clarke at Emirates Stadium
Arsenal marched into the Knockout Stages of the Champions League for the 12th successive season after a hard-fought 2-1 win over Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday.
As usual, the goals came courtesy of Robin van Persie. The first from a magnificent assist by Alex Song, the second via Thomas Vermaelen’s flick-on.
Dortmund began on the offensive and retained their intensity throughout. However, while Wojciech Szczesny’s goal was under scrutiny all evening, he barely made a significant save. Shinji Kagawa’s consolation only came from the last kick of the game.
This victory, and Marseille’s defeat, means Wenger’s side have secured top spot in Group F. Their failure to achieve that last season came back to haunt them in the Round of 16.
Who knows how strong this Arsenal side could be by the time that is played in mid-February? But their ascent is steep right now and it is heartening to see them defeat different opposition in different ways.
This was a clever, controlled victory over a quality side. It means Arsenal have eight wins and a draw in their last nine matches.
They are the real deal – as Europe may just find out in 2012.
This had been billed as the clash of the form sides from their respective leagues – a far cry from the situation when they had shared that draw in Germany on Matchday One.
Wenger sprung, if not a surprise, then a rarity – an unchanged side. But then his team has regained some of their previous panache at Carrow Road on Saturday. They would need it all against a side who had won 1-0 at Bayern Munich on Saturday, partly by going in the offensive when they were under pressure.
Coach Jurgen Klopp was always capable of the counter-intuitive. And his side would attack from the off this evening and dominate the opening half.
Robert Lewandowski nipped through in the opening seconds only to be beaten to the ball by Szczesny. Kagawa then stretched the keeper with a shot from range.
Arsenal were on the backfoot – an alien position for them in the past couple of months.
Their brightest moment of the half was when Theo Walcott was released on the right after 20 minutes. Unfortunately for Arsenal, keeper Roman Weidenfeller raced out to snatch the ball.
Lewandowski crashed an effort inches wide from distance midway through the half.
By now, Arsenal had capped Dortmund’s early insistence. Their balance was not helped by the loss of Sven Bender and the highly-rated Mario Gotze in the first half-hour.
Only in the shadow of the half-time whistle did Arsenal seem to have real control.
The opening period had been characterised by a Dortmund player in acres of space running at backtracking Arsenal defenders.
It many ways it had been a strange half – high on pace and danger, low on notable chances. But Arsenal had held parity.
Dortmund conjured up their clearest couple of chances in the opening two minutes of the second half.
First, a cross from Lukasz Piszczek deflected dangerously across the face of goal and Per Mertsacker had to sweep the ball away at the far post.
Then Kagawa burst through down the right flank before forcing a solid save from Szczesny at the near post.
Arsenal seemed under serious threat but, in response, they managed to produce a match-turning moment.
Ramsey tried to burst through but, crowded out, he prodded the ball back to Song just inside the Dortmund half. The midfielder outpaced his marker down the left and then ghosted between two more defenders before clipping cross to Van Persie at the far post. The Dutchman headed home his 16th goal of the season and, with it, Arsenal placed one foot in the Knockout Stages.
On the hour, their place should have been secure when Ramsey sent Gervinho clear. His dummy fooled keeper Weidenfeller but Mats Hummel thieved the ball as the Ivorian looked set to score.
Dortmund needed to equalise to stay in the competition and, as they had been attacking all night, you knew what was coming.
Arsenal might have profited when Song lead a breakaway charge and Walcott rifled a shot just wide.
The Dortmund pressure continued but the hosts had them contained. After Abou Diaby made his return from injury, they settled any late nerves when Van Persie swept home after Vermaelen flicked on a corner from Arteta.
Kagawa reduced the arrears with the last kick of the game.
It mattered only to Arsène Wenger and the statisticians as it ending a spell of five and a half hours without conceding a Champions League goal.
However, Arsenal were already assured top spot in Group F.
- Koscielny 83
- Ramsey Yellow Card
- Persie Goal! Goal!
- Walcott 86 Yellow Card
- Gervinho 74
- Djourou 83
- Benayoun 74 Yellow Card
- Diaby 86
- Schmelzer Yellow Card
- Gotze 29
- Kehl 64
- Kagawa Goal!
- Bender 25
- Perisic 29
- Barrios 64
- Leitner 25